Those who follow politics within the local Jewish community don’t normally see Rabbi Laurence Sebert’s name on published ads, petitions or letters. Nor do they see quotes from the rabbi on heated or controversial issues.
“I’m not a political activist in my rabbinate,” said Rabbi Sebert, the spiritual leader of Town and Village Synagogue, a Conservative shul on East 14th Street in Manhattan. “It’s not my usual M.O. [modus operandi]. I typically work from within the congregation,” engaging in community organizing or working with organizations like UJA-Federation of New York and Jewish Funds for Justice.
But the rabbi turned out Sunday for an event that many would consider political — a march and rally sponsored by a new group, Religious Freedom USA, to support developers of the proposed Islamic cultural center and mosque near Ground Zero.
“The issues involved are important to my values as a Jew and, also, as an American,” he said, adding that he’s disturbed by much of the language employed by opponents of the center. “Certainly, as Jews, we’ve experienced plenty of this kind of discrimination, and to create an atmosphere that promotes negative rhetoric and activity toward Muslims is hateful.”
Andrew Upton, an attorney from Riverdale and founder of the Human Rights Coalition Against Radical Islam, would probably say that the same values brought him to the weekend’s main rally against the center.
That event, organized by the Freedom Defense Initiative and Stop Islamization of America, both founded by activist and blogger Pamela Geller, took place on Saturday, the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy, a controversial choice for some. Like Sunday’s march and rally, and like a Friday night vigil in favor of the center, Geller’s event drew thousands of people to Lower Manhattan and the blocks surrounding Ground Zero.
Upton, whose group was created early last year, after the attack by Muslim radicals in Mumbai, India, said his organization “believes it’s disrespectful and insensitive to have that mosque in the Ground Zero area.” The group is also concerned that “any mosque of that scope and funding” — as many as 15 stories, according to the plans of developers, and at a cost of as much as $100 million — “is inevitably going to be connected to, or controlled by, radical Islam.”
Unlike many of the center’s opponents, who consider themselves right-wing politically, Upton calls himself liberal and believes the vast majority of Muslims are moderate. He’s also bothered by some of the rhetoric among those who share his views, tracing the “unreasoned prejudice” to the sense of fear many of them feel.
But he argues that Islam itself “is controlled by its radical voices,” intimidating the majority of Muslims and making their more progressive views irrelevant. He also believes the majority of Muslim leaders, including those in the United States, are fanatics “trained by radical, fundamentalist or Wahabi” schools.
“Truthfully, if I was a moderate Muslim, I don’t know if I’d open my mouth,” Upton said. “It’s a difficult position to be in.”
The very fact that Geller scheduled her rally for Sept. 11 raised passions among many New Yorkers even before it took place, especially among the families of 9/11 victims. Some 9/11 relatives endorsed the rally, and two spoke there, including the Ukrainian-born Jewish mother of one victim, while others expressed their distaste.
Joyce Gales, whose 35-year-old son, Peter Kellerman, died at Ground Zero, said she remains opposed to the center, as she told The Jewish Week several months ago. In fact, if anything, she has come to distrust the main figure behind the project, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, even more than she did last spring and believes he’s insincere when he talks of building bridges.
At the same time, Gales called the idea of demonstrating on Sept. 11 “disgraceful,” saying the rally could have taken place a day later.
“When I heard they were going to hold a rally on 9/11, I couldn’t believe it,” said Gales, who lives in Manhattan and participates in a support group for 9/11 mothers led by the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services. “It’s like holding a rally on Yom Kippur,” the most solemn day of the Jewish year.
For Joan Klitzman, a member of the same JBFCS support group, whatever takes place on Sept. 11 is immaterial. She and her family recall her daughter Karen, who was 38 when the planes hit the World Trade Center, throughout the year and “don’t choose a date for our grief.”
What disturbs Klitzman is that some people “are using 9/11 to foment opposition” to the Islamic center and to appeal to what she considers the basest of emotions.
“My daughter believed in tolerance, understanding and acceptance of all people,” said Klitzman, a resident of the Upper West Side, and she would have objected to anything that stood in opposition to those values.
Klitzman’s words echo those of her older daughter, Susan. In a Sept. 3 letter to The New York Times, she wrote that her sister “would have been deeply offended, as I have been, by the growing number of public figures … who are invoking her memory, along with those of 9/11 victims en masse, to promote ignorance, prejudice, and religious and ethnic discrimination.”
The Sept. 11 rally featured more than a dozen speakers, including two talk-radio hosts, Steve Malzberg and Mike Gallagher, and Nelly Braginsky, whose son, Alexander, a Ukrainian-born immigrant like herself, died at Ground Zero. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart spoke to the crowd through videotaped messages. But the most controversial speaker, by far, was Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician described by the Anti-Defamation League as an anti-Muslim bigot.
Wilders called the center “both a provocation and a humiliation” to Americans. For the sake of the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11, “we cannot tolerate a mosque on or near Ground Zero,” he said, leading the crowd in a chant of “No Mosque Here.” If the center was built, he added, New York would become “New Mecca.”
Malzberg, who identifies himself as a secular Jew and an ardent Zionist, told rally-goers they should be fine with being called “bigots, Islamophobes, whatever.” The United States is not an Islamophobic nation, he said, and the mosque is “a symbol of conquering.”
Braginsky, who, at times, seemed close to tears, said the issue isn’t religious freedom but the center’s location.
“Everybody can build anything they want,” Braginsky said in heavily accented English. “You want to pray? God bless you. You want a mosque? God bless you. But do not put a mosque on a cemetery.”
The previous evening, a coalition of groups, New York Neighbors for American Values, staged a vigil in support of the center that drew 2,000 people. Members of the coalition included the Jewish Labor Committee, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice and Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), a West Village synagogue that serves a largely gay and lesbian membership.
One participant, a 41-year-old political consultant in a gray suit and kipa, stood by the side selling T-shirts featuring a Star of David, a cross and a Muslim crescent.
“This is the way to set the tone for what most Americans think and feel,” said the consultant, Charles Lechner of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. “They think the religious freedom we have in America is a very precious thing and that it’s wrong to pick on members of any one faith.”
One of the vigil’s volunteer staff members, Diane Steinman, worked until last month as the director of the American Jewish Committee’s New York City chapter, a job she held for 20 years.
She came to the vigil “because I feel commanded,” said Steinman, a resident of Forest Hills, Queens. “Our world has been fractured by hate, and it’s our duty to heal that wound.”
That sense of obligation also prevailed Sunday at St. Peter’s Church, a Roman Catholic institution two blocks from Ground Zero, where Religious Freedom USA organized a rally in support of the Islamic center.
Among those sitting in the church’s dark-brown pews was Rick Landman, a member of CBST, whose synagogue was among several Jewish organizations, including J Street, to endorse the event.
Landman, whose parents are refugees from Hitler’s Germany, said it’s “just as wrong” for Americans to paint all Muslims with a broad brush as it was for Europeans in the 1930s and ‘40s to paint all Jews with a broad brush.
The coalition behind Sunday’s event was created by Joshua Stanton, a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and Frank Fredericks, a born-again Christian and close friend of his. Stanton said his group is planning other events, all aimed at countering the hateful rhetoric around the Islamic center.
Rabbi Sebert is planning to organize similar activities, although all will follow in the same quiet, personal path to which he’s accustomed.
“This political situation strengthens my resolve and desire to create more connections” between the Town and Village Synagogue and the nearby Madina Masjid, a mosque with which the Jewish congregation has organized past activities, the rabbi said.
“That’s what community organizing does,” he added. “It takes these strong emotions and says, ‘What can we do now to harness our convictions?’ The first step is getting together, talking to people and seeing faces.”